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Elite colleges now want students to start their applications when they're 14

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Some of the most selective colleges in the US want to make it easier for students to apply. Starting in January, 80 elite colleges are joining together to create a system where students can start working on their college applications as early as ninth grade.

The new system includes Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, as well as liberal arts colleges and some of the most prestigious state universities. Called the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, its goal is to make it easier for low-income students to navigate the college application process, particularly when applying to colleges where they're likely to get full financial aid.

It's also meant to fight the dominance of the Common Application, which more than 600 colleges use, by making it easier for colleges to ask specific questions.

Those are both fine goals. But from what's been revealed so far, the new system doesn't seem likely to shake up the status quo. While its intentions are good, it seems more likely to help high-achieving, well-resourced kids than their less privileged peers.

As long as colleges are joining together to improve the application process, they should think about going much, much further, and upending the system entirely.

The problems the new application is trying to solve are real

The college applications process is locked in a vicious cycle. Students are applying to more colleges, which makes those colleges look increasingly hard to get into, so students apply to even more colleges to hedge their bets — and the cycle continues.

Meanwhile, low-income students with good test scores often don't apply to selective colleges at all, even though the best colleges offer generous financial aid and have higher graduation rates than less competitive colleges. It's not entirely clear why they're making these choices, but a study found that giving those students information about application fee waivers and financial aid made them more likely to apply to more colleges — suggesting that in part they struggle to navigate the system, or to understand what choices are out there.

The new coalition is trying to solve both those problems. Its application will include a "virtual college locker," where students can upload work throughout high school and draw on it when they're putting their application together. They hope it will make the college application process clearer and more transparent, particularly for disadvantaged students, and encourage them to think about college earlier.

And it's meant to help colleges tailor their questions more than the Common Application does. The problem it's likely to encounter, though, is the same one that faces every tool meant to help students choose and apply to college.

Those tools are always more likely to reach savvy, plugged-in high school students, who go to schools with enough resources to hire college counselors, than to reach the disadvantaged students they're meant to help.

There's another way to solve these problems — and collaboration is a good start

If the coalition really wanted to make a difference, it could shake up the applications process entirely, taking a lesson from game theory that's used in medical school residency matching.

Students would rank colleges in order of preference, and colleges would rank students, so that students get into the college they rank most highly that also wants them.

There's already an example that accomplishes the goal they're trying to achieve: QuestBridge, a nonprofit with a proven track record of getting low-income students into selective colleges.

Through QuestBridge, students apply to up to eight colleges, ranking them in order of preference. They're guaranteed admission and a complete financial aid package at the college they rank most highly that also wants to admit them. Last year, according to the New York Times, QuestBridge applicants made up 11 percent of Amherst's freshman class.

Some of the colleges in the coalition use QuestBridge already. If they're serious about making college applications more streamlined and accessible, they should look into whether they can adopt its tactics, too.

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